Farming with fewer animals is the only way forward: why not solve the nitrogen problem with technology

Yesterday’s Pano broadcast on nitrogen emissions shows farmers’ dependence on technology. But does technology deliver what it promises? Unfortunately, the reality is different.

Significant investments have been made for years in technology that promises amazing reductions in ammonia, but hardly produces any results in practice. Ammonia emissions in agriculture have remained stable for the past 15 years. Legally speaking, a fierce battle has been raging in the Netherlands for some time over the safety offered by these stable technologies to protect nature. The Dutch Council of State said earlier this month that they were not sure whether permits would be granted.

In addition to empty promises, blind optimism in technological solutions threatens to keep us away from tackling the root cause. Importing nitrogen in the form of animal feed and fertilizer has given us the opportunity to expand our livestock to hallucinogenic proportions. Not just for our food needs, especially for bulk export. Populated Flanders is the sixth largest exporter of chicken meat worldwide, while our living environment and our health are under overload from this industry.

Moreover, this encourages development towards intensive livestock farming with fewer farmers and larger stables. Only large-scale farmers can profitably invest in the required technologies. For example, people consciously continue to focus on a system that we know has only losers, with the exception of the agricultural industry. Moreover, some technologies create new problems. For example, air purifiers need liters of water to reduce nitrogen deposition. An absurd situation in our region marked by water scarcity. An audit in 2020 showed that 20% of farmers do not use installed scrubbers, possibly due to their high energy and water consumption.

With a focus on reducing nitrogen emissions, we are targeting just one symptom of an agricultural system on the verge of collapse. In this way, we can at best solve part of the nitrogen problem today, only to have tomorrow’s agricultural sector constrained by poor water quality, a huge compost heap or a lack of biodiversity. As if they had nothing to do with each other. Only a nitrogen agreement that addresses the entire nitrogen accounting system can give farmers and nature a future. As long as we don’t dare question the current paradigm, investment in innovation will continue to be on the margins.

Do we dare to choose a different agricultural model that focuses on farms? To do this, we have to leave the path of mass export-oriented meat production, towards more land-based livestock farming, a more sustainable form of livestock farming where the animal population is directed to the carrying capacity of the environment. The smaller herd offers many opportunities. Not for the big players in the series, no. Well to the community. And those gains are crystal clear: healthier soil and air, cleaner water and richer biodiversity, not coincidentally also essential tools for farms. This transformation is a difficult task in an international context that follows its own rules, and is dominated by an agricultural industry deeply intertwined with political interests. A farmer, who must have a central role in a flexible diet, often lacks the financial and mental space to break free from this system.

Despite the remarkable focus on technical measures, this nitrogen agreement represents a clear shift in the direction of agricultural policy in recent years. Source-oriented measures, such as reducing pig numbers, have the potential to steer the Flemish agricultural sector in a different direction. We need to strengthen these actions, prioritizing new robust revenue models for farmers who want to operate on the ground.

Thus, the Nitrogen Agreement represents an opportunity to invest the released budget of €3.6 billion undisturbed in a diversified, future-oriented agricultural landscape with more farmers and fewer animals. In fact, some agricultural organizations argue, it’s time to end this madness. However, this insanity is to be found not in the strict and daring regulations of the nitrogen problem, but in the stubborn adherence to the existing system.

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